Chicago area researchers engineering better masks with improved design and safety

They’re known for big science – super computers and sequencing proteins. But at the same time, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory simply want to make better masks.

They’ve been working on ideas since the early days of the pandemic. And now they’re ready to roll them out.

Research is being conducted on the 1700-acre campus in the Chicago southwest suburb of Lemont.

Jeff Elam PhD. and his colleague Anil Mane PhD. work with chemical coatings and materials.

“When the pandemic hit a lot of us were working from home but there was sort of a call to arms,” Elam said.

When COVID-19 hit, they had an idea that inspired them to quickly return to their lab.

“The masks you and I are wearing now are intended to prevent droplets from coming out of our mouth and infecting other people,” Elam said. “It will catch those droplets. But they will still remain infective. If you can kill the microbes, you could make them even more effective to reduce the spread of the virus.”

They started tinkering with an n95 mask you’d find at a hardware store.

“Once you take out the mask material there are different layers,” Mane said.

N95s contain an electrostatic layer of material that catches tiny viral particles. It’s what makes them so effective.

But the Argonne team believed a chemical coating would make the workhorse even more powerful by killing the viral particles caught in the fibers.

They experimented on small pieces of n95 material and ran samples through a tube where vapor pulses applied a specially formulated antimicrobial coating.

“What we want to do is put a coating, not just on the surface of that fabric, but inside of every one of the little fibers that are used to make that mask so it will be effective at killing the virus,” Elam said.

Once they found the right formula, they tested their “catch and kill” material layer against bacteria and viruses, including a SARS-CoV2 surrogate.

“We tested this mask with antivirus antibacterial samples, and it’s worked greatly,” Mane said.

“The coatings are general. Although we developed them for n95 masks, we think we could just as easily put them on gloves, protective eyewear and even on filters for buildings,” Elam said.

Tucked away in a corner of the massive campus, more mask research is underway.

Materials scientist Yuepeng Zhang PhD. and her team have been spinning nano-fibers since April and “making a new n95 filter material that could be an alternative solution to the commercial n95,” she said.

It’s made on what looks like a high-tech loom. Tiny jets spin fibers 1500 times thinner than a human hair. Their special polymer solution contains anti-viral ingredients that get embedded in the fibers.

“We put the anti-viral compound or nano particles into the electro-spinning solution, so either way we actually embed the anti-viral ingredients inside our nano fibers,” Zhang said.

Both the mask shell and thin filter are reusable and washable using common soapy water, alcohol or bleach solutions. And the fibers contain an extra virus-fighting property.

“When people wear masks for a long time, it’s very uncomfortable and you have a hard time to breathe,” Zhang said. “You have a better face fit and more comfort when you wear them.”

The design isn’t just for healthcare workers. The thin layer can be applied to any piece of cloth.

The entire team has been working tirelessly hoping they can make a difference on the frontline of the pandemic by bringing their ideas to the assembly line.

Much of the work at Argonne is supported by the Department of Energy. And now the scientists there hope to hand off their ideas to large-scale manufacturers who can bring their masks to the masses.

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